Film review – Terminator Salvation (2009)

John Connor (Christian Bale)

John Connor (Christian Bale)

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the latest instalment in The Terminator series follows on from where audiences last saw John Connor at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines when the war with Skynet and the machines began. However, it also feels like a prequel, covering the back-story that leads to Connor’s decision to find and then send resistance fighter Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, Sarah Connor, as depicted in the original 1984 Terminator film. The other key character in this fourth instalment is Marcus Wright. Wright is a character who was supposedly executed in 2003 but finds himself very much alive in 2018 and helping Reese to stay one step ahead of the homicidal machines.

Kyle Reese is played by Anton Yelchin (Chekov from Star Trek) who convincingly resembles a teenage version of Michael Biehn, who played Reese in the original film. Yelchin is terrific and one of the major flaws in Terminator Salvation is that Reese is marginalised during the second half of the film. On the other hand Christian Bale, who still seems to be in his gravely voiced Bruce Wayne mode, plays John Connor with little conviction. Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl as John Connor respectively in the second and third films were far more charismatic and interesting to watch. The parts of Terminator Salvation featuring John Connor feel like an afterthought and yet are allowed to take over the film towards the end. This brings a halt to the development of the story of Marcus Wright, engagingly played by Australian actor Sam Worthington (Rouge, Gettin’ Square), which is far more interesting.

Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)

Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)

Overall Terminator Salvation stays true enough to the preceding Terminator films and contains some very nice nods to the original two films in dialogue, music and various visuals. Some of these nods you see coming; others are terrific surprises. Directed by television executive producer and music video director McG, Terminator Salvation contains the degree of visual flamboyance that you would expect from the guy who directed the hyperkinetic Charlie’s Angels. Hardware lovers are going to love it and the various vehicles and robots look fantastic, containing a gritty authenticity to the way they look and move, which leaves the cartoonish creations in Transformers for dead. The cinematography favours the muted, washed out look that is popular in modern war combat films such as Black Hawk Down and the frequent special effects driven long shots are incredibly impressive, as is the remarkable sound design. The result is akin to playing a highly sophisticated, all-encompassing first person computer game as you really do feel thrust into many of the action sequences. The film later gets bogged down in unremarkable interior action sequences, but the earlier scenes combine a desert setting and a lot of vehicular carnage, which even suggests an ultra high-octane variation of the Mad Max aesthetic.

TRMSLVN_Intl_TSD-23050 low res

So why isn’t this film more enjoyable than it is? Partly because while it is so technically impressive on an objective level, it doesn’t ever engage with the audience on an emotional level. In The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day James Cameron maintained a constant level of excitement and sheer dread over the idea that our heroes were being pursued by an unstoppable killing machine that could not be destroyed. Terminator Salvation suffers from having too broad a scope and too many plot lines that drift in and out of the film. It lacks the drive of the original two films and it lacks an overall sense of cohesion. Like the third film, Terminator Salvation does not damage the integrity of the series but it is completely disposable entertainment.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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2 Responses to Film review – Terminator Salvation (2009)

  1. Allen says:

    Mr. Thomas Caldwell,

    I couldn’t agree with you more on this review. It is hard to believe that Christian Bale is getting such a huge draw as he is b/c he has not really seemed to branch out from the singular acting mode that he has donned since The Machinist, in addition, he is actually ‘out-emoted’ in the film by the actor playing Marcus Wright, who is supposed to be part machine and, by extension, partly emotionless. Also, the chronology from the original films does not appear to sync as Reese, whom we were led to believe was far older in the original film, appears to young and has to much to age to allow him to be the ‘correct age’ in the original film. The story was actually well constructed, I felt, but it felt like a prologue of a more major film and seemed to drag b/c the viewer never was on edge for any length of time as all the major plot lines were foretold in the story itself so there was never any element of unpredictability, which was crucial to the success of the first 2 films (we should pretend the 3rd film never existed, although I feel the 2 main actors in that film would have done far better as John Connor and his spouse than Bale and Howard.

  2. Thanks for dropping by Allen and adding your comments; all of which I’m inclined to agree with. I really like Bale but he does tend to play the same sort of character again and again. His version of John Connor is not that different from his take on Batman and his character in Public Enemies. I recommend you track down Rescue Dawn as that’s probably the best work he has done in recent times.

    I didn’t mind the third Terminator film and felt that it was closer in tone to the original two that this one (even if this one is a better film). I doubt we’ll ever get a Terminator film as good as the original two but I hope that the planned 5th and 6th films are a little more involving.

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